22/05/2024
Norwich, GB 17 C
Researching and reporting on the lives of some really interesting people (RIP)

THERESA STEWART, aged 90

A LIFE OF PRINCIPLE

Born Theresa Raisman in Leeds, her father John was a banker and her mother was Ray Baker.

Theresa at Birmingham City Hall (courtesy Telegraph)

One day, when she was still quite small, her father disappeared without a trace. Investigation showed that he was bankrupt and that he had not only left his job and family, but he had fled the country. Theresa never saw him again.

Her mother took a job as a secretary and brought her up on her own – although Theresa said she was helped by the close-knit Jewish community of Leeds.

After high school, she won a scholarship to study Maths at Somerville College, Oxford University. It was there she met John Stewart and they married in 1953. They were to have four children (David, Lindsey, Selina and Henry).

She worked for a while at Marconi, as their only woman graduate, and then she trained to be a teacher – but never taught in a classroom.

John got a job working with the Coal Board and was transferred to Edinburgh, then Doncaster and finally Birmingham, the family always going with him.

It was in Birmingham that he left the Coal Board and got a job lecturing at Birmingham University, eventually rising to become Professor of Local Government.

They were a very close couple. Theresa once said, “We did argue once, in 1951, and decided we didn’t like it, so we didn’t do it again.”

Meanwhile, Theresa joined CND and became the organiser of the local branch. She joined the Labour Party as well.

She campaigned for comprehensive education for all and founded the Birmingham Pregnancy Advisory Service (out of which grew the British Pregnancy Advisory Service grew).

Other campaigns were for Brook (sexual advice for children), a woman’s right to choose re: abortion, and successfully leading the campaign to ensure Child Benefit was given to the mother and not the father.

In 1968, Theresa was appointed for a 3-year term to run the Birmingham Hospital Board. She lasted one year before government minister Keith Joseph removed her because of her political beliefs.

She was elected as a Labour Councillor in the Billesley ward in 1970. She threw herself into improving the lives of the poorer members of the community.

She actively supported the city’s gay community and made many friends there. She secured them community grants – facing fierce opposition in council.

She set up a workshop for disabled people and single mothers – to teach them skills so that they could make a living.

She also opened her house to miners and steelworkers during the strikes of the 1970s.

She was reluctantly persuaded to stand for Parliament in the Hall Green constituency in the October 1974 and 1979 General Elections. She significantly reduced the Tory majority in October 1974 but was soundly beaten in 1979. In private admitted she was relieved at the defeats as her heart was only with local politics.

Whenever Tony Benn was in Birmingham he came for tea at her house. Her children claimed they had never seen anybody drink as much tea as he did.

But in 1988, Theresa was suspended (along with 19 other councillors) by the Labour group for opposing planned cuts to a local children’s home.

She was soon back in the council and by 1993, the Labour group elected her as their leader. Consequently, she became the leader of Birmingham City Council, the first woman to hold this post. She kept this position for 6 years.

Birmingham City Council is Europe’s largest local authority.

Her time in charge led to a major shift in emphasis of policy. It went from developing infrastructure and buildings to concentrating on people – through education and social services. An example of this was refusing to back the Council’s attempts to stage the Commonwealth Games. She said the money should be spent on schools and housing. She used to say, “Municipal Socialism – Municipal Stupidity.”
But she continually clashed with Birmingham’s left-wing Labour MP, Jeff Rooker.

In 1998, Birmingham won the award as Britain’s best local authority (in the Local Government Awards).

That same year, Birmingham hosted the G8 summit. She met both Bill Clinton and Tony Blair and had tea with Boris Yeltsin’s wife Naina.

But her greatest thrill was meeting Nelson Mandela. The photograph of them meeting and shaking hands, both smiling, remained on her mantlepiece for the rest of her life.

The council had originally organised a ‘Dinner with Mandela’ at £50-a-head. Theresa rejected this and changed it to a free reception, giving the people of Birmingham the chance to meet the great man.

She stepped back from Council Leader in 1999 and became Mayor of Birmingham for one year in 2000.

And she was also awarded an honorary Doctor of Literature from the University of Birmingham.

She finally retired from local politics in 2002 but was still actively involved in the Labour Party up until 2017, campaigning until she was 87.

Edwina Currie, a Conservative Minister said Theresa was, “strong-minded, moderate and pretty sensible.”

She remains the only woman to have led Birmingham Council.

There is a Birmingham tram named in her honour. – Tram 11.

She died after a long illness. Her friend, Harriet Harman said she was, “a pioneer for women’s equality and women’s representation, a true sister to me and others. A truly exceptional woman”.

She was called one of the most influential women in British political life.

Even at her death, in her obituary, the Daily Telegraph labelled her as “the leader of the loony left.” And what were they angry about? The fact she had once refused to lunch with the Queen – and the fact (they claimed) she had set up a workshop for “disabled lesbians.” – this is the workshop she had set up for single mothers, mentioned previously.

But her son Henry would disagree. He said, “My mother led a good life and brought me and my siblings up to know it was possible, even in politics, to live a life of principle.”

The current Labour Leader of Birmingham Council, Ian Ward said she was, “an amazing, inspirational and compassionate woman who made a huge difference to her city.”

Her husband John survives her. They had just celebrated their 67th wedding anniversary.

Theresa Stewart (courtesy Birmingham Live)

RIP- Regional Inspirational Politician

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